A Church for Today?

A talk given on Sunday, March 8th 2015.

It is 144 years since your church was planted here in this place! This church has an enormous cloud of witnesses who have gone before. Whatever your church got right, and whatever it got wrong in the past, during my time in this district, I have always struck by the way in which the local folk hold your church in high regard. Something must have been right!

Currently, I am a tutor on a ministry training course … Our recent theme was “Aliens in the land” – it was based on the book of Ruth. Where do Christians stand on the question of immigration etc.? We were given the following story:

A middle aged couple moved into a semi on a suburban estate. Their very warm, caring next door neighbour invited them around. The husband was working, so his wife went alone. ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’, she was asked. ‘A cup of coffee please’. She says, but with obvious disapproval. She looks around. The house is untidy. A teenage girl and a ten year old boy are in the room. The girl is listening to music on headphones – out of contact with everybody. The young boy is engrossed in a hand-held computer game. Again, out of contact. There is very loud rap music from the teenage son who is upstairs. Mum persuades him to turn it down. Typical family really. The new neighbour says nothing, but her body language says it all.

The man of the house arrives – apologises for being late. He had to work later than expected. The new neighbour smells beer on his breath – he had taken his client out for a hospitality drink. The neighbour has no way of understanding this. The man is a larger than life. A warm, very outgoing character. He is clearly anxious to welcome his new neighbours, and to see what they might have in common.

He talks about his job, his family etc. hoping to find common ground. Finally, he tells her that every Sunday morning, they have a ‘family time’; quality time as a family – they play golf together at the local golf club and finish up with a meal and a drink there. “Would you like to join us along with your husband? It is a really enjoyable occasion. You will be very welcome”. The new neighbour says, a little sharply, ‘Oh no, we go to church on a Sunday morning.’ After which she looked at her watch, thanked her neighbours for inviting her, and left. On the way out, before her neighbour had closed the front door, she heard the man mutter something about ‘ ….. God botherers’.

In the context of ‘aliens in the land’, the new neighbours were the aliens. They were new to the community, and their neighbours had bent over backwards to be welcoming. The newcomer did everything she could possibly do to reinforce the view that all churchgoers are judgemental, hypocritical killjoys.

After the story, we had a very interesting group exercise. We were to imagine planting a church in that locality with the family next door in mind. What is our new church like? And what is there about it that will attract these particular neighbours?

The ensuing discussion was fascinating. We ended up with an imaginary church in a local pub. We’d meet, maybe on a Sunday afternoon, and end with a meal and a drink for those who wanted to stay. The worship would be informal and interactive, with space for discussion as we go. The launch was to be by holding an an event. Possibly a pub quiz, or maybe a barbecue (with alcohol!). The event would be social only, with NO ‘God stuff’. It would be family oriented, as would our new church. We wanted to get to know the local folk – pure and simple.

Now back to reality: this church was planted on this site 144 years ago. The society into which it was planted was very very different from society today. In those days, guilt feelings were everywhere. I know you have occasionally enjoyed a Moody and Sankey sing-along. Moody and Sankey were part of a worldwide Christian revival when this church was quite young. Their method was to literally, ‘put the fear of hell’ into everyone. I quote from one of their meetings:

“One night as Sankey sang ‘Come Home, O Prodigal, Come Home’, a cry pierced the silence and a young man rushed forward and fell in the arms of his father, begging forgiveness. The entire congregation was impressed and hundreds pressed to an adjoining room seeking prayer and pardon”.

Also, in those days, drunkenness was a major problem in a way that we simply can’t imagine. Some Christians urged folk to ‘sign the pledge’. Others founded a ‘temperance movement’. Yates’ Wine Lodges were one excellent example. Alcohol was sold there, but no spirits. Moderate drinking was OK.

Today, there is no guilt as such. The Christian concept of ‘sin’ is meaningless to today’s society. Instead, however, many people feel empty and unfulfilled. They feel a need for acceptance. They simply don’t feel accepted. There is a great sense of alienation. People feel a need for acceptance, for love, for community and for a way of finding commitment – to something …. a ‘something’ which they have not yet discovered.

To meet with folk ‘where they are at’ means taking away the emphasis that church used to give to the concept of ‘sin’ (whatever that was supposed to mean) and instead to see the lovely person behind the sadness.

You might look at education today. We no longer use the ‘big stick’ approach. Instead, we give praise, affirmation and encouragement. We try to discover what a child is good at, and encourage them to learn to do it even better. This approach works really well.

You have probably seen recent reports of Stephen Fry and his outburst. I have to agree with him. Stephen Fry’s ‘god’ really is a mean minded, petty, vicious monster. I was brought up with a God a bit like that. The God I found (eventually) is totally loving and accepting. We don’t have to grovel and beg forgiveness. But that is what the founders of this church needed to do – in their day, they felt just a guilty as the rest of society. That attitude has long since gone. Stephen Fry’s ‘God’ is a relic of those far off days, and it is we who need to change our attitude.

Sin – what is that supposed to mean? If I were to offer you ‘sin’ for today, it would not be about all the things you shouldn’t do. Today, society has put an overwhelming emphasis on individuality. The individual person and their status seem more important than anything else. Getting on, and getting to the top (wherever that is) seems to be what life is all about. So: we have turned our back on God, we have sidelined the family and community, and unsurprisingly, people are often lonely and feel unloved and unaffirmed – they feel they are failures if they have not reached ‘the top’.

Our Christian faith has all the answers. It begins with a living relationship with our loving, living all-forgiving, all accepting God. It begins with that relationship in each of us: in our lives. It doesn’t have anything to do with what we do in church on a Sunday or any other day. If you want your neighbour to find God, then take God to them – not in words, but in yourself. Become Jesus. He didn’t preach and moralise (except to the converted!). He loved, and accepted people where they were at. Can we do the same?

I leave you with a challenge. If you were to plant a church today, what would it look like and feel like, and why might your neighbours beg you to take them there? God meets all of our needs today just as surely as he did 144 years ago. Our needs today are not the same as they were then. We need to become a church that reflects today’s needs, and allows God to meet the needs of our community as it is today.

Revd Barry Drake MA